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Senate Banking Committee Grills HUD Nominee Ben Carson In Hearing


Dr. Ben Carson was questioned today about how he would lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson is a retired neurosurgeon with little experience in housing or development. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on Carson's confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: It was clear that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers find Carson's life story inspiring. He grew up poor in Detroit, the son of a single mother with a third grade education, and became a highly recognized brain surgeon. But Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown noted that Carson has attributed much of his access to his own ambition and hard work and has argued that government aid can hold people back.


SHERROD BROWN: For those who cannot overcome the odds on their own, should we not help them?

FESSLER: Carson said he thinks there definitely is a role for government aid but that safety net programs should help people become self-sufficient.


BEN CARSON: What has happened too often is that people who seemingly mean well have promoted things that do not encourage the development of innate talent in people. And hence we have generation after generation of people living in dependent situations.

FESSLER: Carson said if he is confirmed, he'll try to address the problems faced by low-income families in a more holistic way, a little like a doctor. He wants to focus on the health impacts of living in substandard housing, especially when it comes to lead paint and to try to make sure that those getting housing aid have access to good education and jobs. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez wondered how Carson would do all that given his past support for deep cuts in government spending.


BOB MENENDEZ: Do you agree that the government should continue to provide rental assistance to the more than 4.5 million low income households across this country?

CARSON: I think the rental assistance program is essential. And what I have said, if you've been reading my writings, is that when it comes to entitlement programs, it is cruel and unusual punishment to withdraw those programs before you provide an alternative route.

FESSLER: Although Carson did not spell out what that alternative route might be, he did say a better economy with good jobs would help and that if confirmed, he'll go on a listening tour around the country to hear from local officials and residents about how they would make HUD more efficient. Carson was also asked about his opposition to the Obama administration's efforts to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act. He said he has no problem with the law's intent, which is to reduce neighborhood segregation.


CARSON: I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they don't know anything about what's going on in the area.

FESSLER: He said local officials are in a better position to figure out how to achieve fair housing, although he did promise to make sure the law is enforced. Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren had another concern. She noted that the incoming president has significant business interests in real estate and housing, where HUD also has extensive dealings. The agency has an annual budget of more than $46 billion.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect or his family?

CARSON: I can assure you that the things that I do are driven by a sense of morals and values, and therefore, I will absolutely not play favorites for anyone.

WARREN: Dr. Carson, let me stop right there. I'm actually...

FESSLER: Warren tried several times without success to get a more direct answer, but Carson did promise later in the hearing that he would report back to the committee if he comes across any potential conflicts of interest involving the president or his family. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.